I didn’t really know what Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack was about when I requested it from NetGalley. I saw the cover plus the word “dragon” in the title and I immediately hit the request button. Reading Anya and the Dragon, though, was like reading a fairy tale. It has its slow parts, its exciting action scenes, and its important moments that make you step back from the page and think. Overall, it’s a fun middle grade fantasy about family, friendship, and magic.
Anya is the daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When the bigoted magistrate threatens to take away their home, Anya agrees to help capture the last dragon in the area in exchange for money. But when she finds out the “scary old” dragon isn’t old or scary, she begins to rethink her decisions. Faced with an impossible choice, Anya can either save her family or the dragon.
My favorite aspect of Anya and the Dragon are all the mythical creatures. This book is chock-full of creatures that aren’t the ones we read about over and over in fantasy stories. There are the bukavac swamp monsters, the creepy mermaid-like rusalka, and, of course, the lovable dragon. I love that Sofiya Pasternack chose to include different kinds of mythology in her story than what is typical.
Which brings me to the world-building. For some reason, I saw the “snake-like” dragon on the cover and assumed the story was set somewhere in East Asia. I should have known from the name, Anya, however, that it was set in Eastern Europe, which was fantastic. While it’s becoming more popular to branch away from the typical Western Europe fantasy setting, I’m always enchanted by books inspired by Eastern Europe. I love the atmosphere of this story, from the various foreign words used to describe things to the many Ivans that appear between the pages to the type of dragon Håkon is.
At times, though, the inclusion of Russian words are often difficult to pronounce and have limited context within the story. I wish the book included a glossary and pronunciation guide (and a map!) to help younger readers ease their way into the world.
I also love that Anya and her family are Jewish. I have not read enough books about Jewish families that spotlight their specific customs and celebrations. I absolutely loved reading about Anya preparing the bread for the Sabbath and I appreciate how the author showed the prejudice against Anya and her family. It’s an important, on-going discussion that Sofiya Pasternack handled well.
The magic of the story is also a highlight. I love how it’s described as “threads” and that people have different affinities for magic. I hope more of this magic is explored in any sequel books because it has so much potential and needs time to truly breathe.
At times, Anya and the Dragon moves a little slower than I expected, but it has all the elements of a great middle grade novel mixed with the sense of magic only found in a fairy tale. I highly recommend to people who love middle grade, excited dragons, interesting magic, and a different kind of fantasy setting.